Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Insertion of banker’s mistress in Raphael fresco a cheeky move

When Pope Julius II (1443-1513) slipped on the papal “ring of the fisherman,” the banker from Siena who helped with the Pope’s expenses prior to his election was not forgotten. Pope Julius II appointed Agostino Chigi (1466-1520) treasurer and notary of the Apostolic Camera, the Papal Treasury. Forging strong financial ties throughout Western Europe, Chigi’s financial operations employed up to 20,000.

On his way to becoming the richest man in Rome, Chigi needed suitable quarters on the Tiber on the Vatican side of the river. He commissioned a painter from Siena, Baldessare Peruzzi (1481-1536), to design his palace on Via della Lungara in 1508.

With Pope Julius II (1443-1513) summoning Michelangelo (1475-1564) to Rome in 1508 to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, frescoes were in vogue. Peruzzi turned to mythological themes for inspiration for Chigi’s main hall, named Galatea after a sea-nymph. Astrological scenes in the ceiling were surrounded by golden stars reflecting the position of constellations on the date of Chigi’s birth.

Raphael (1483-1520) was hired to finish the frescos there and in the loggia of Cupid and Psyche. The lives of putti fluttering about the ceiling appear perilous, demanding defensive maneuvers against ferocious beasts. And there, almost within the shadow of the Vatican, Chigi’s mistress brazenly posed in the buff as one of the Three Graces, the one on the left above perched atop fluffy cloud. I believe her flip side is captured as part of the same trio in another triangle in a photo below.

Invitations to parties hosted under these scenes were among Rome’s most desirable, with the guest list combining the pope and cardinals, princes, the wealthy elite, poets and artists. To demonstrate his wealth, the flamboyant Chigi was known to cast silver dishes over the wall toward the Tiber at the end of feasts; although the frugal banker in him would prearrange to have servants with nets down below to catch the falling tableware for recycling at the next soiree.

In 1579, the palace was purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589), who evidently saw no need to interfere with the frolickers in the frescoes. Farnese’s career was launched when he was only 14 with his appointment as a cardinal by his grandfather, Pope Paul III (1468-1549). Lucrative appointments within the church allowed the cardinal to accumulate great wealth under several popes. Chigi’s villa became known as Villa Farnesina and is now a museum.

Directly across the street from the gardens of Chigi’s villa, Cardinal Domenico Riario commissioned construction of a palace in 1510. Presumably the neighbors coordinated their party schedule so the extremely narrow street was not impossibly clogged by guests’ carriages. This palace was rebuilt completely in 1736 for Cardinal Neri Corsini (1685-1770), named a cardinal by his uncle, Pope Clement XII (1652-1740).

Among the notable occurrences in what is now known as Palazzo Corsini was the death of Queen Christina (1626-1689) of Sweden. Christina was only six when her father, King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), found himself lost in thick smoke behind enemy lines while leading a cavalry charge during the Battle of Lutzen during the Thirty Years’ War. The Protestants won the battle, but not before the King suffered fatal wounds.

Christina’s mother did not handle the loss well, demanding that her husband’s coffin be kept open in a room in a palace so she could visit it often and saving his heart in a separate keepsake box in her room. Officials were not able to bury the decomposing king until 18 months after his death. Not surprisingly, her mother was deemed unfit for the regency or for raising her daughter.

Instructions left behind by King Gustavus Adolphus were for his daughter to be educated as a boy would be. An excellent student, Christina mastered nine languages. But, with all her studies, Christina failed to pick up many of the prevailing attributes of femininity, often dressing as a man would. Her refusal to marry and her close relationship with a lady-in-waiting sparked continual rumors.

While Sweden emerged as a major European power following the signing of the Peace of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in 1648, Queen Christina seemed tired of the weight of the crown and abdicated in favor of a cousin in 1654. She secretly had converted to Catholicism, so Rome would be more to her liking than her Protestant homeland. Rome celebrated her arrival and conversion, with Pope Alexander VII (1599-1667) confirming her in the Vatican Basilica.

In Rome, she rented the palace from the Riario family and plunged herself into attending and hosting social affairs, collecting art, meddling in papal politics and even conspiring to wear the crown of Naples. Alternating between masculine attire and gowns with daring décolletages, she kept Rome guessing as to who reclined with her in her chambers under the fresco of “The Judgement of Solomon.” A cardinal frequenting the palace was chastised by the pope. Christina never married, and, when she died, her sole heir was her steadfast friend, the cardinal.

The Corsini family sold the property in 1883 and donated the entire art collection to the state. The Corsini museum is operated in tandem with another palace (more later) as the National Gallery of Paintings. The extensive gardens behind the palace are now the Botanical Gardens of Rome.